United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF's principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress. It describes itself as "[g]rounded in and informed by the American experience". It is rooted in the U.S. Evangelical movement and its original intention was to protect Christians around the world. Such organisations as Christian Solidarity International, International Christian Concern, Open Doors and the Cardinal Kung Foundation as well as the lawyer Michael Horowitz were influences for the foundation of the International Religious Freedom Act.
It is funded entirely by the federal government on an annual basis and its staff members are government employees.
As of June 2010, the Commissioners are:
1) Leonard Leo (chair), Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society.
2) Elizabeth H. Prodromou (vice chair), Associate Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs and Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University.
3) Dr. Don Argue, Chancellor, Northwest University.
4) Talal Eid, Founder and Director of Religious Affairs, Islamic Institute of Boston.
5) Felice D. Gaer, Director, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights; The American Jewish Committee.
6) Richard Land, President, Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. In 1999, An Anti-Hindu booklet was produced by the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. More-over, the Hindu American Foundation's 2007 report concluded that the International Mission Board's website spreads online Hatred, Extremism and Bigotry against Hindus.
7) Nina Shea, Center for Religious Freedom, Hudson Institute. Shea's work has primarily focused on religion, in particular on the persecution of Christians, a theme she has repeatedly used to push for interventionist U.S. policies dating back to the Contra wars in Nicaragua.
8) William Shaw, Immediate Past President of the National Baptist Convention, USA. Inc. and Pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia
The State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom serves as an ex officio, non-voting member of the Commission. Past Commissioners include Preeta D. Bansal, John Hanford, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Charles J. Chaput, Michael K. Young, Firuz Kazemzadeh, Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli, John R. Bolton and Elliot Abrams.
The legislation authorizing the USCIRF had stated that the Commission would terminate on September 30, 2011, unless it was reauthorized or given a temporary extension. It was given several extensions by the Congress, but would have expired at 5:00 pm on Friday, December 16, 2011 had it not been reauthorized for a seven-year term (until 2018), on the morning of the 16th. This happened after a new reauthorization bill passed both Houses containing two amendments were made to it that Senator Dick Durbin, D-IL (the Senate Majority Whip) had wanted as a condition of releasing a hold he had secretly placed on the former version of the bill; he released it December 13, after the revisions were made. They stipulate that there will be a two-year limit on terms for commissioners, and that they will be under the same travel restrictions as employees of the Department of State.
In the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, Congress created three mechanisms in order to advance universal human rights:
- An Office of International Religious Freedom in the United States Department of State, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
- A mandate that the State Department prepare Annual Reports on International Religious Freedom
- A requirement to name the most egregious religious freedom violators as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) and to take policy actions in response to all violations of religious freedom as a specific element of U.S. foreign policy programs, cultural exchanges, and international broadcasting.
Duties and responsibilities
USCIRF researches and monitors international religious freedom issues. The Commission is authorized to travel on fact-finding missions to other countries; Consult and meet various entities like officials of foreign governments, religious groups, human rights group, policy experts etc; Hold public hearings, and issue reports as well other public statements; Participate in U.S. delegations to international meetings and conferences as well as train Foreign Service Officers and other U.S. officials.
The Commission on International Religious Freedom issues an annual report every May 1. The annual report describes conditions for freedom of religious or belief in countries of concern to the Commission and provides policy recommendations to ensure that the promotion of freedom of religious belief becomes a more integral part of U.S. foreign policy. The report contains chapters on countries the Commission had recommended for designation as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) for severe violations of religious freedom; countries the Commission has placed on a "watch list" for violations of religious freedom that do not meet the CPC threshold but require attention; and other countries USCIRF is monitoring closely. The annual report also includes chapters on U.S. policy on expedited removal and multilateral organizations.
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 provides for the Commission to be composed of ten members:
- Three appointed by the President
- Three appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate, of which two of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the Senate of the political party that is not the political party of the President, and of which one of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the Senate of the other political party
- Three appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, of which two of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the House of the political party that is not the political party of the President, and of which one of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the House of the other political party.
- The Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, as non-voting ex officio member
IRFA provides that "Members of the Commission shall be selected among distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law." Commissioners are not paid for their work on the Commission (Stanke, 48). Appointments last for two years, and Commissioners are eligible for reappointment.
The effect of the various appointing authorities is for the Commission to be bipartisan in character. The position of the Chair rotates from year to year from an appointee of one party to the appointee of the other.
Many of the commissioners have been leaders of various Abrahamic religious groups, including Imams, Bishops, Archbishops and Rabbis. No commissioners have been the leader of a non-Abrahamic religious group.
USCIRF has placed India on CPC and watch list in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 primarily because of communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat and Mumbai, Kandha-Tribals and Panna-Christians in Odisha, and anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
USCIRF is known to be biased towards Abrahamic faiths like Christianity and Islam. USICRF report drew criticism from the Indian press. The Pioneer, in an editorial termed it as “fiction", "biased”, and “Surpassing Goebbels”. It criticized USCIRF for projecting the massacre of 58 Hindu passengers as an accident. It also accused USCIRF of indirectly justifying murder of Swami Lakshamananda Saraswati, a Hindu cleric and social activist.
Christian leaders in Odisha defended India: Archbishop Raphael Cheenath stated that India remained of a secular character, the president of the Odisha Minority Forum that, despite a small hate campaign against minorities, the majority of society had been "cordial and supportive", and the Orissa Secular Front that, despite the 2002 and 2008 riots, India had a strong secular foundation.
Prior to the 2001 visit of the USCIRF to Egypt, some Coptic leaders in Egypt protested, viewing the visit as a form of American imperialism. For example, Mounir Azmi, a member of the Coptic Community Council, said that despite problems for Copts, the visit was a "vile campaign against Egypt" and would be unhelpful. Another critic called the visit "foreign intervention in our internal affairs". In the event, the USCIRF was able to meet the Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III and Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al-Azhar University, but others refused to meet the delegation. Hisham Kassem, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, felt that insisting on the rights of Christians in Egypt might antagonize Muslims and thus be counterproductive.
Cursing the darkness
First-ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple, criticized the USCIRF’s emphasis on the punishment of religious persecution over the promotion of religious freedom. In his view, the USCIRF was "only cursing the darkness". As an example, he highlights the Commission’s decision to designate Laos a Country of Particular Concern in 2002 despite release of religious prisoners. Of the USCIRF he further stated “...that which was conceived in error and delivered in chaos has now been consigned to irrelevancy. Unless the Commission finds some candles soon, Congress ought to turn out the lights."
The Commission responded that despite the releases, the Marxist, Pathet Lao government in Laos still had systemic impediments to religious freedom, such as laws allowing religious activities only with the consent of Pathet Lao government officials, and laws allowing the government to determine whether a religious community is in accord with its own teaching.
Other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious freedom and human rights advocates, policy experts and Members of Congress, have defended the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's research work, and various reports on the Pathet Lao government's increased and serious religious persecution in Laos, from Seiple's controversial criticism. They have pointed out potential conflicts of interest involving reported grant monies Seiple, or a non-profit organization connected to Seiple, reportedly received from officials at the U.S. Department of State to apparently seek to minimize grossly increased religious persecution and widespread human rights violations by the Lao government and the Lao People's Army.
Prominent Lao- and Hmong-Americans, human rights advocates, public policy experts, including Philip Smith of the Center for Public Policy Analysis Members of the U.S. Congress, and others, were highly critical of Robert Seiple's controversial position, and pointed out a possible conflict of interest, including reported funding Seiple received from the U.S. Department of State to bring communist Pathet Lao officials to America who had direct connections to the Lao security forces (including Ministry of Interior Secret Police and Religious Affairs Secret Police officials), Lao People's Army and Vietnam People's Army forces engaged in serious religious freedom and human rights violations in Laos. From 2003-2011, these increased religious freedom and human rights abuses in Laos, in contrast to Sieple's controversial perspective, included the well documented arrest, harsh imprisonment, torture,extrajudicial killing, rape, massacre, and ongoing brutal military attacks on religious and political dissident Laotian groups and the minority Hmong people, including scores of attacks against Christians, Animist, and Buddhist religious believers. They also include, according to Amnesty International, and other NGOs, the use of food as a weapon to starve to death many thousands of unarmed Hmong civilians hiding from religious and political persecution in Laos by the Lao People's Army and security forces. For example,in direct contradiction to Robert Sieple's controversial position at the time, according to the CPPA and Associated Press, in 2003, Laos arrested a Christian Hmong-American pastor and a number of European journalists investigating religious persecution, human rights violations and security forces attacks in Laos by the Lao government and military, especially on the Hmong people. This created a major international and diplomatic incident. Moreover, following the Pastor's and journalist's arrest, Lao[communist officials, with the assistance of the Lao People's Army and security forces launched further major attacks and crackdowns on Laotian and Hmong religious believers, as well as attacks on independent Christian, Animist and Buddhist political and religious dissidents seeking to live freely from government persecution and control in the mountains and jungles of Laos. According to Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Members of Congress, independent journalists, and others, tens of thousands of Lao Hmong refugees fled Lao government military attacks and massive religious and political persecution to neighboring Thailand as recently as 2007-2009, prior to their forced repatriation back to the Marxist regime in Laos that the fled. In 2006, Amnesty International reported the massacre of Hmong women and children by the Lao government and other atrocities.
At special sessions of the U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos held in the U.S. Congress and Library of Congress, the Commission's work on Laos in naming Laos as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), or placing Laos on a country watch list, for religious persecution and religious freedom violations under the Pathet Lao government and Lao People's Army was lauded by key policymakers, non-governmental organizations, human rights advocates, experts and Members of the U.S. Congress, including the Center for Public Policy Analysis, Amnesty International, Vang Pobzeb of the Lao Human Rights Council, Kerry and Kay Danes of the Australia-based Foreign Prisoners Support Service, the Lao Veterans of America, Inc., Wangyee Vang, of the Lao Veterans of America Institute,U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy, U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, U.S. Congressman Jim Moran, U.S. Congressman Benjamin Gilman, U.S. Congressman Mark Andrew Green, U.S. Congressman Tim Holden, U.S. Congressman George Radanovich, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, U.S. Congressman Dan Burton and others. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and its staff presented testimony, or spoke, at a number of the U.S. Congressional Forum's on Laos and evidence on ongoing religious freedom violations in Laos was discussed by Members of Congress, policy experts and victims of horrific religious persecution in Laos. Reports and evidence about the targeting and killing of Lao and Hmong minority religious believers, including Christians and Animist believers in Laos by the Lao People's Army and Vietnam People's Army was discussed.
Christian bias and other issues
Despite appointing Muslim commissioners, The Commission has also been accused of being biased towards focusing on the persecution of Christians, and of being anti-Muslim. A former policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she was fired because she was a Muslim and a member of an advocacy group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Current commissioners and some other religious-freedom advocates deny the claims of bias. The commission has also been accused of in-fighting and ineffectiveness.
I think the legislative history of this Act will probably reflect that there was a great deal of interest in protecting the rights of Christians …. So I think that the burden is probably on the US government to show that in this Act they’re not engaging in crusading or proselytization on behalf of the Christian religion.
the policy will promote the cause of Christians to the exclusion of persecuted believers of other religions.
In a 2009 study of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Institite of Global Engagement stated that the United States' international religious freedom policy was problematic in that it "has focused more on rhetorical denunciations of persecutors and releasing religious prisoners than on facilitating the political and cultural institutions necessary to religious freedom", and had therefore been ineffective. It further stated that U.S. IRF policy was often perceived as an attack on religion, cultural imperialism, or a front for American missionaries. The report recommended that there be more attention to religious freedom in U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy in general, and that the USCIRF devote more attention to monitoring the integration of religious freedom issues into foreign policy.
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